Those familiar with the background of Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras are often struck with a single question when the man opens his mouth to sing:
Why, given the rich baritone that can range from languid to intense, from reverently hushed to brashly bombastic, did it take so long?
Obviously, he’s no stranger to music. He is the man who loaned out his initials to Robinella and the CCstringband, which flirted with national fame a few years ago with a hit (“Man Over”) on Country Music Television and an appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 2003. Maybe it took a while for him to find his voice – not the literal one, the one that makes you think of Randy Travis or Dan Tyminski or even the great Ralph Stanley in his prime. We’re talking about that other voice – the one steeped in regret, seasoned with pain and tempered in the fires of hard times.
You see, Cruz almost gave it all up. After records on Sony and Dualtone, Robinella and the CCstringband split – figuratively and literally. Cruz lost his wife, his home, his way. It’s a funny thing, though, the way music takes hold of a man. He spent the summer of 2008 driving a truck, and by the end of that year had the skeleton of an album ready to go.
Whiskey Angel was born from the ashes of one career, and shortly after its release, the East Tennessee music scene learned quickly that Cruz was as much of a bandleader as his ex-wife was when he stood in her shadow. In fact, Whiskey Angel made you forget there was ever anything for Cruz Contreras before The Black Lillies – the band that he brought together to record an entire album over the course of a weekend in his living room.
The Black Lillies take their name from a song on that first record. After filtering through several lineup changes, Cruz assembled a crackerjack team of pickers, players and singers who have what it takes to put meat on those songs. Tom Pryor made a name for himself playing pedal steel for damn near any band that could talk him into it; drummer Jamie Cook anchored the rhythm section for Americana darlings the everybodyfields; harmony vocalist Trisha Gene Brady can wail like a hellcat or purr like a wildcat, and everybody who’s heard her sing agrees it only makes sense that someone with her pipes can provide the perfect counter-balance to Cruz. Bassist Robert Richards is the latest addition to the band, and under his steely-eyed gaze, no bass, stand-up or electric, stands a chance.
And then there’s the bandleader himself. Standing in front of the pack, he guides his team with the dignified aplomb of those greats of old – Buck Owens with the Buckaroos, or Bob Wills commanding his Texas Playboys. He knows how to work the crowd, at ease behind the mic, in front of a piano or caressing the necks of a mandolin or guitar. In fact, it’s rare for Cruz to be presented with an instrument he doesn’t play, and everything he does finds its way gently worked into The Black Lillies’ aesthetic with all the swirls and flourishes of brush strokes on canvas laid down by a master painter.
With Whiskey Angel, The Black Lillies established themselves, and it didn’t take long for them to make their mark on the national scene. They kicked off their first national tour at the Ryman Auditorium, the hallowed mother church of country music, and have since labored through three cross-country treks, with a fourth planned for the summer of 2011. They’ve performed on National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage and on two episodes of PBS’s Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s, and they’ve conquered numerous festivals – Pickathon, the Americana Music Association Festival, Four Corners Folk Festival, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, even Bonnaroo.
Along the way, the scribes who keep tabs on what’s worth listening to in this day and age have taken quite a shine to Whiskey Angel. It topped 2009 best-of lists across the country and is currently nominated for Best Americana Album by the Independent Music Awards. It isn’t uncommon for listeners to say that the music has taken hold of their soul. It’s earthy and gritty and melancholy in a way old mountain music was a century ago, speaking of pain and love and revenge and revelry with such spirit, such genuine celebration and sorrow, that it seems to be an album carved out of the planks of a backwoods cabin abandoned during the Great Depression more than a thing recorded in a living room studio by one man.
And as good as it is … as great as it is … it’s a drop in the bucket, because 100 Miles of Wreckage is here. The sophomore record takes what Cruz built in Whiskey Angel and fortifies it, a rustic sound without name and place, unbeholden to geographic region or easy classification. It’s an album crafted with precision and care by musicians who are masters of their trade, who believe in The Black Lillies’ vision and who hold fast to the notion that good music – music with heart and purpose and purity of spirit — is still a valued commodity.
It goes out to nationwide radio and brick-and-mortar CIMS stores this spring, and without a doubt, The Black Lillies will be touring to support it in a town near you. That’s a relative term, of course, but trust us on this – they’re worth the drive, however far it is, because you’ll leave feeling like you’ve witnessed an old-fashion Southern tent revival. These songs will haunt your thoughts long after the curtain closes, rattling through your head like a crooked screen door slaps against its frame when a storm is coming.
It’s that music. It’s that heart. It’s that voice. Why did it take so long, you might ask? Who cares? He did find it, and in the end, we’re grateful. And we think you will be too.